Eclectic Boogaloo

The anti-government extremist movement’s loose structure and adaptability is the key to its growth.

Four Boogaloo Bois carrying rifles and wearing Hawaiian shirts, lined up against a wall.
Armed Boogaloo Bois demonstrate outside the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing on May 20. Jeff Kowalsky/Getty Images

Just a few months ago, most people in the United States had never heard of the “Boogaloo Bois.” But now, as we move into the latter half of 2020, this nascent and decentralized movement, which mythologizes firearms as the solution to perceived tyranny, has become an attractive proposition for a surprising number of Americans.

Against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, the increased implementation and use of so-called red flag laws, and recent protests and calls to defund the police following George Floyd’s killing, Boogaloo narratives and imagery have proliferated widely. Its eclectic aesthetic has become highly recognizable at recent protests and political events, even as the movement itself remains largely misunderstood.

The national media briefly fixated on the presence of Boogaloo Bois at George Floyd demonstrations and protests over the past several months, often remarking on the movement’s elective symbology, including Hawaiian shirts and igloos, a riff on the name Boogaloo. Other adornments sported by adherents of the movement, such as the skull masks popularized by accelerationists, colonial tricorn hats and coats, and “operator”-style headgear, illustrate the movement’s roots in memetics and its ability to draw from varied backgrounds. (The name “Boogaloo” itself refers to a popular meme involving a formerly obscure 1980s dance movie.)

But the Bogaloo Bois are more than just a meme, and several acts of political violence on American soil are connected to the movement, including homicides committed by active-duty members of the U.S. military. We should not dismiss the Boogaloo as disaffected far-right youth enamored with firearms, nor derisively mock them as LARPers playing dress-up. What may seem like an edgy fascination with meme culture should not obscure the fact that this is a fast-growing movement with broad appeal, particularly over the increasing use of red flag laws, “no-knock” raids, and police use of force against unarmed citizens. The movement’s shared narratives amplify existing anti-government animus and provide an offline justification for the use of violence—a justification that its most militant members, fueled by the doctrine of accelerationism, are happy to exploit. Accelerationism is best described as an emerging doctrine that rejects political solutions and seeks to hasten societal collapse through incitement and terrorism.

What accounts for the popularity of the Boogaloo movement? Several factors are worth exploring.

First, barriers to entry into the movement are low. The movement is decentralized, largely organic, and there are no loyalty pledges to a leader. Instead, the beginner’s kit for the Boogaloo consists simply of a rudimentary grasp of meme culture, sympathies with America’s anti-tyrannical legacy, and the ability to legally purchase a firearm. Though even for those who are lawfully restricted from owning a gun, hardcore firearm enthusiasts have made printing 3D guns and assembling so-called ghost guns easily attainable.

Second, the Boogaloo movement skillfully uses memetics as a principal narrative builder to gain adherents aggrieved with ongoing law enforcement violations. Many have lionized and memeified an individual named Duncan Socrates Lemp, a 21 year-old Maryland resident killed by police during a raid of his home to recover an illegal weapon. Alarmingly, Lemp’s death and subsequent meme-based martyrlike status has merged with digital marketing campaigns for ammunition and firearms sales. Companies have brazenly used both Lemp’s death and Boogaloo branding to push sales during the initial surge of anti-lockdown protests. In addition, commercialization of the Boogaloo through various products like patches, stickers, and apparel intended to be worn at demonstrations can be found on Amazon and other online retailers, further extending entry-level Boogaloo content to non-taboo digital spaces.

Third, the Boogaloo movement has successfully built its brand on distorted myths about the revolutionary founding of America, the role played by militias, and the anti-tyranny narratives associated with symbols like the Gadsden flag, along with its familiar motto “Don’t Tread on Me.” Boogaloo adherents have sought to harness and channel diminishing faith in key democratic institutions, with the unifying message of individual sovereignty and a lack of trust in any form of authority, particularly the federal government and all levels of law enforcement.

Fourth, the widespread appeal cannot be divorced from the movement’s heavy reliance on social media. The iconography associated with Boogaloo is steeped in a meme culture designed to be edgy and rebellious. In recent years, Boogaloo narratives and memetics drawing on the Revolutionary War and patriot themes have found fertile ground in Facebook’s Groups and Pages and encrypted communications platforms like Discord and Telegram.

As Discord and Facebook moved to clamp down on the Boogaloo, followers of the movement altered their group names to avoid detection, while hardcore adherents fell back on Telegram, where they overlap with accelerationists, preppers, and survivalists. This is a tailor-fit situation for accelerationist narratives, which exploit memetic edginess to encourage widespread societal strife and instigate system-level collapse.

These four factors illustrate why the Boogaloo is so adaptive and particularly adroit at attracting attention within audiences not typically associated with traditional anti-government militia movements. And though it may draw on similar narratives, the Boogaloo is not your father’s anti-government militia. Arrest records and social media activity show the Boogaloo movement holds widespread appeal, recruiting from a broad demographic that spans geography, age, occupation, and level of education. Ultimately, what one brings to the Boogaloo is more important than what the Boogaloo gives back to the individual.

Boogaloo resonance coincides with exceptional levels of uncertainty and existential fears related to the COVID-19 pandemic, a hyperpartisan political environment susceptible to Russian disinformation efforts ahead of the 2020 election, and a generational shift in understandings of democratic norms in American culture.

While the Boogaloo is predominantly a right-wing phenomenon, it is not exclusively so, and is ideologically diverse even within the broader far-right umbrella. Some Boogaloo Bois have aligned with Black Lives Matter protesters in solidarity and to varying degrees of success. At one Ohio BLM demonstration, Boogaloo adherents engaged earnestly with protesters, repeatedly echoing calls that Breonna Taylor’s killers be brought to justice. Some BLM protesters embraced the Boogaloo presence and claimed they were fighting the same fight. Yet elsewhere Boogaloo adherents have been chased away or evaporated into the night when clashes with police reach fever pitch.

Whether the Boogaloo movement continues to grow may depend on a catalyzing event along the lines of Ruby Ridge, the Waco siege, or the Philadelphia MOVE bombing by police. The movement’s adaptive capabilities as a meme-based culture will mean its adherents can quickly adapt to and capitalize on emerging issues.

More than likely, the Boogaloo are here to stay.

For more of Slate’s news coverage, subscribe to What Next on Apple Podcasts or listen below.